Wednesday 28 April 2021

How to Be There for a Friend When No One Else Is

Always have a willing hand to help someone, you might be the only one that does. (Roy T. Bennett)

Fran and I write a lot about having a supportive team so you’re not relying on one person all the time. I’m proud of my place on her team, amongst the other friends and professionals who help her stay safe and well. Knowing I’m not alone helps me focus on being the best friend I can be, confident there are others for Fran to call on if I’m unavailable or can’t offer what she needs. It’s the same with my other close friends. I’m part of their support teams and they’re part of mine.

But sometimes a friend is hurting, distressed, or in need, and I’m the only person around. Perhaps the other members of their team are unavailable or can’t offer what my friend needs. Maybe there isn’t anyone else. Not everyone has a team. What do I do then?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. A lot depends on what my friend needs; how available I am to help; my relevant knowledge, skills, and experience; my other responsibilities or commitments; and my personal boundaries. I find it helps to remind myself of the options: saying yes, saying no, or saying no, but. We have these options all the time, of course, but the decision is more important when there’s no one else around.

Note that I didn’t include saying maybe. There’s no place for uncertainty when a friend is in need. Be honest about whether you can help or not, but don’t defer the decision or give false hope. And, whatever you decide, follow through. I remember Fran telling me years ago how she needs people to be straight with her. She asks only that people respect her enough not to promise what they have no intention of delivering. (“Yes is OK. No is OK. Not right now is OK.”)

I tell my friends: no matter what time it is or what you think I might be doing, if you need me, ask. I’d much rather be asked and have to say no than for my friend to stay silent for fear of bothering me. This works because I trust my friends to be honest about their needs and they trust me to be honest about whether I can help.

Let’s look at those options in a little more detail.

Say Yes

Saying yes is my default response. What is friendship, after all, if it’s not being there for one another? Far from feeling used or put upon, I consider myself blessed when I can use my skills, abilities, and experience to help another person. In the words of Ruth Bebermeyer:

I never feel more given to
than when you take from me –
when you understand the joy I feel
giving to you.

That said, being a good friend doesn’t mean saying yes to every request, even when you can.

Say No

Saying no isn’t just about being honest if I’m busy or can’t meet my friend’s request for some other reason. There’s a crucial difference between helping someone in positive ways and enabling unhealthy actions and behaviours. In the early months of my friendship with Fran, I helped her pursue a very unhealthy, mania-fuelled project because I didn’t see how dangerous it was. We realised before any lasting harm was done, but it would have saved a great deal of anguish if I’d recognised sooner what was happening and said no to her requests. Fran would have hated that but it would have been better for us both in the long run.

Selflessly acquiescing to other people’s demands is also unhealthy for the giver. This is something I’ve learned over the years, most painfully by witnessing what it did to my mother. Decades of putting other people before herself led to depression, anxiety, and despair. At her funeral, the priest eulogised, “She was a saint. Literally, a saint. She always put others first.” I wanted to scream “Yes she was. She did. And look what it did to her.”

Saying no is never easy for me but it’s hardest of all when the other person has few or no alternatives. As long as it doesn’t become a habit, I think it’s okay to convert what might otherwise have been a no into a yes. Making the other person a priority is pretty much what it means to be a friend. I’m not interested in being someone who’s only there for others when it’s convenient.

Some talk to you in their free time, and some free their time to talk to you. Learn the difference. (Unknown)

But what if you really can’t say yes? Let’s look at the third option.

Say No, But

Being the only one around doesn’t make you responsible for meeting your friend’s needs, but it does mean you’re part of what happens next. If at all possible, leave your friend with a way forward. That might mean confirming they can take that next step on their own, or suggesting alternate sources of support. This may not be the answer they were looking for, but an honest and engaged no, but — rather than simply dismissing them out of hand or turning your back — can be just as helpful in the long run.

Most fundamentally, make sure your friend is safe. If they’re in acute distress or you believe they may be at risk of harm — including self-harm or suicide — consider escalating to professional services or signposting them to an appropriate crisis or support line. If that’s not appropriate or necessary, maybe there are other ways you can help rather than simply saying “sorry, you’re on your own.”

I once took a call from a friend who was lost, scared, and alone. I didn’t have a car so going to pick her up wasn’t an option, but I stayed with her on the phone until she was safely home. On other occasions, I’ve arranged taxis or loaned friends the cost of a ride to get them where they needed to be as quickly and safely as possible. Sometimes the issue isn’t the request itself, but the timing. If so, I’ll offer to meet or take their call as soon as I’m free. Work with your friend to find a solution that works for you both.

Be Kind Always

Fran and I wrote a whole book about being a supportive friend but I still get things wrong. I described how my mother’s health suffered from always putting other people’s needs before her own. I’m far from blameless in that. On many occasions I failed to offer her the support she needed. I said no when I needed to say yes. I’ve failed other people too, either by not being there when they needed me, or by being overbearing — effectively saying yes when I hadn’t even been asked for my assistance or support. I believe I’ve learned from these mistakes, although the people who are part of my support team now, and who accept me as part of theirs, are better placed than me to assess that.

I can’t be there for everyone who calls on me at all times, no matter how much I’d like to be, but where there is honesty and trust, I know the friendship isn’t at risk just because I can’t always say yes. What matters is that I feel empowered to make those decisions, and supported in doing so.

[My friendship with Fran] has taught me to be more aware of others who may be struggling. That doesn’t mean I try and help everyone, but I offer what I can and neither absent myself nor run away. To do this, I need people prepared to support me in moments of confusion, frustration, and self-doubt — and they do occur — without imposing limits on my capacity to care.

Above every other consideration, if I find myself in a position to help someone when no one else is, I remind myself of the words of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso:

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.


Photo by Kato Blackmore on Unsplash



  1. I like this Marty it was in the book thanks Carol R

  2. As usual, excellent post Martin.